Today, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany (“manifestation,” “revelation,” “shining forth”)—also referred to as Theophany (“revelation of God”), or the Feast of Lights. While the Western church commemorates the visit of the Magi on this day, focusing on God’s revelation to the world through the birth of Christ, the Eastern church commemorates Jesus’s baptism, focusing on the Father and Spirit’s affirmation of the Son’s divinity at the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew 3:13–17 gives us the account:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Below is a selection of contemporary Theophany icons from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Romania. All but one of them bear a semicircle at the top, which signifies the “opening of the heavens” and the voice of God reaching down; in Ioan and Camelia Popa’s, God’s hand is even visible. (Representation of the Father is forbidden by tradition, though a hand is generally acceptable because the Bible itself uses anthropomorphic expressions like “God’s hand” and “God’s mighty arm.”) A dove descends from this aperture, a literalization of the Gospel writers’ simile.
On the shores of the Jordan stand one or more angels at the service of their Lord. Their hands are covered by their own cloaks as a sign of reverence—or in some representations, they hold garments to drape over Christ when he emerges from the water. (Early icons of Jesus’s baptism show him completely naked, emphasizing his self-emptying; now, however, it’s more common to see him in a loincloth.)
In Lyuba Yatskiv’s and the Popas’ icons—the most traditional of this bunch—there is an allegorical figure in the river by Christ’s feet, pouring out water from a jug. This man is a personification of the Jordan River, which miraculously dried up, temporarily, to allow the ancient Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:15–17). Some icons, though none pictured here, include a second allegorical figure, (Red) Sea, who is turning away, parting (see Psalm 114:3).
In George Kordis’s icon, instead of Jordan at Christ’s feet, there’s a serpent being crushed, a reference to Psalm 74:13: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Visually, this recalls the Eastern church’s Resurrection icon, which depicts Christ breaking down the doors of hell, flattening Satan.
Back to Yatskiv and Popa. In these two there is an axe lying next to a tree, alluding to the sermon by John the Baptist that immediately preceded this episode, in which he proclaimed, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).
Epiphany calls us to worshipfully behold the shining forth of Jesus as messiah and as the second person of the Trinity. To orient yourself to the Orthodox celebration of today’s feast, here are two liturgical hymns, the Troparion and the Kontakion, that will be sung congregationally:
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.
. . .
On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.
They offer a perfect lens through which to view the following icons.